In the years after the Civil War five sets of events—three in the intellectual world, two in the social world—influenced philosophers in the United States. This chapter surveys how these changes transformed the speculative tradition.
In 1865 the Englishman John Stuart Mill published his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy. At his intellectual zenith, Mill was a talented thinker with wide tastes who defended Hume's outlook, distanced himself from religion, and emphasized the world of science. Along with some others Mill became known as a 'positivist' and champion of skeptical empiricism. The Examination was a masterly polemic that buried the reputation of Hamilton, who had been dead for almost ten years. The book lacked sympathy and even justice in discussing the Scottish reply to Hume and Hamilton's realism, but Mill did expose their shortcomings and evasions. He did not grasp Hamilton's distinction between knowledge of the primary and of the secondary qualities, of the effects of the noumena and the effects of the noumena on people. The scattered and unsystematic quality of Hamilton's writing and the frequent vagueness and even contradictions in his thought played into Mill's hands. The misapprehension allowed Mill to ridicule a major failing in Hamilton's exposition. Mill asked if knowledge was relative to phenomena, how could Hamilton defend realism, a claim to direct awareness of noumena? On Mill's analysis Hamilton's relativism was inconsistent with his realism.
Instead of realism Mill reinstated a Humean empiricism. We had before us phenomena that scientists were best equipped, for practical purposes, to observe and measure. Mill also introduced nominalism into American debate. We had to relinquish knowledge of universal truths and a presumption to see real connections in the world. Instead all we could be certain of were fleeting, individual impressions. When it was convenient, we gave the same names to constellations of these impressions in the interests
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Publication information: Book title: A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000. Contributors: Bruce Kuklick - Author. Publisher: Clarendon Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 2001. Page number: 97.
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